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Your vote is less powerful than they think

2010-05-13

I know the About page says that the site excludes election rhetoric, but I’m going to break this rule. Not for politicians, mind, but for a common rhetorical move that appeared frequently in the media about the political process following the lack of a majority in the General Election. It took the form:

The public didn’t vote for X1, they voted for X2 and X1 wouldn’t be democratic, where Xs are from the set of possible resolutions to the hung Parliament: Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, minority government, another election, a combination of the above or some other alternative.

The fact is that the public were not offered a choice of whether they wanted a hung Parliament or not, or any preferred way to form a government. They voted for a local MP. The total sum of their preferences is a hung parliament, but the ultimate end result doesn’t mean that any individual person democratically supported that particular choice.

As an example, when I voted last week, I was offered a choice between five different people representing, between them, the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Greens. Now, I chose to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate who did not win – it is a very safe Tory seat and we sent back the incumbent Tory. Did I vote for any particular resolution to the hung Parliament? No. I didn’t even vote for Cleggmania (anything but). I voted because I’m broadly on the left, and between the Greens, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the latter had a greater chance of unseating the Conservatives in Wealden. I voted on policy, not on politics. Politics is actively uninteresting for me except as a rich source of faulty logic; policy has a direct effect on my life.

Does my vote for the Liberal Democrats imply that I have voted for a Conservative-Liberal coalition? What if I had voted for the Labour candidate? Would that mean that I would be counted as a supporter of a Liberal-Labour pact? What about the smaller parties: if a vote for the Conservatives, Liberals or Labour has some kind of mapping to an opinion on the resolution to the hung parliament, surely those who voted for the Greens or UKIP or the British National Party or the Socialist Workers Party or whoever also implicitly and silently voted for some particular choice of the alternatives. I don’t understand how that follows.

All of these claims seem to be riddled with special pleading. If you heard someone from the Conservative party, they told you of how a Liberal-Labour coalition is undemocratic because the people didn’t vote for it – but they wouldn’t tell you that people didn’t vote for a Liberal-Conservative coalition. If you hear someone from Labour, they’ll tell you that the voters didn’t vote for a Conservative-Liberal coalition, but they didn’t vote for a Liberal-Labour coalition either! After Gordon Brown announced that he will step down as Labour leader, Conservatives started saying that if there were a Liberal-Labour coalition, then whoever Labour choose to replace Brown would not have been democratically elected. Except, they would. Doesn’t matter if it was Alistair Darling, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman – whoever were chosen as Labour leader would presumably have been democratically elected as an MP.

The problem is simply this: in Britain, we do not vote for a leader or even a government. We vote local MP. If we wanted a way to specify who the Prime Minister is, we ought to switch to American-style presidential elections. That way we would all get a vote as to whether we wanted Brown or Clegg or Cameron or whoever in charge. If we wanted to choose who to vote into government, we could actually have an election based around parties.

Ah, you might say, but people who voted for Labour thought they were going to get Brown, not some unknown former Cabinet Minister like, say, Alistair Darling (plus a Liberal Democrat coalition). But imagine this alternative result: Labour had won the election with a clear majority but Gordon Brown had not been re-elected in his constituency. Same problem. Brown could become Prime Minister, but it would be politically impractical – the Labour Party would elect a new leader as quickly as possible. It’d be quite strange, as you would actually have an elected leader in the sense of ‘elected’ I reject – people who had voted for the Labour Party in constituencies other than Brown’s would have been voting for Brown to be Prime Minister (sigh: where does it say that on the ballot form, again?). But he wouldn’t have been elected in the boring technical sense of actually getting more votes than his constituency opponents. Then, the Labour Party would rush around to find a leader who is actually an MP. He or she would have actually been elected in this boring technical sense: hence their being an MP. But in the woolly sense of having been the leader who appeared on TV, in debates and on the campaign trail, they wouldn’t have been elected in that sense.

Hung parliaments and coalitions are really good fun for journalists: rather than waking up the day after the election and saying “We’ve got a Conservative government run by David Cameron“ (or the same for Labour or Liberal or whatever), they get to draw it out for nearly a week of speculation. An endless supply of talking heads are able to then trot along to radio and television studios and pontificate about what possible conclusion to the proceedings would be democratic. The true answer is any of them. The problem is that our current electoral system doesn’t give enough information to answer the questions that have been do confidently answered by the pundits for the last week or so.

There is a simple moral that can be taken from this: when you vote, you are only voting for what you see on the ballot paper and that which can be deduced from it. Once you start having to invoke complex counterfactuals, you have unmoored yourself from the actual election and have entered a world of hazy speculation and power games.

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